The desegregation of the United States military, which began 178 years after Crispus Attucks died in the Revolutionary War, is considered an important benchmark in the quest for equality and civil rights for African-Americans.

But when President Harry Truman signed an executive order on July 26, 1948, calling for the desegregation of the military, it was the beginning, not the end, of the fight for African-Americans to fight alongside white troops.

Truman had served as an artillery officer during World War I, a war in which more than 350,000 African-American men served in segregated units, often in menial non-combat roles, though in some instances, in heroic feats of combat. By the time he became president, Truman, who had been known to harbor personally racist views, had “evolved” on the issue of segregation, and is now considered one of the most progressive presidents on the subject of civil rights for African-Americans. Many historians believe his war experience helped to change his views.

Executive Order 9981, which established a blue-ribbon commission called the “President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services,” was accompanied by Executive Order 9980, which created a Fair Employment Board to “eliminate racial discrimination in federal employment.” The committee was tasked with recommending changes to military regulations, in order to make “equality of treatment and opportunity” for all soldiers, seamen, airmen and Marines possible in the armed services, regardless of race.

Truman had informed Congress of his intent on February 2nd, and he made good on that promise with his executive orders. Still, it would take six years from the time Truman signed those orders until the day the last segregated military regiment was disbanded, in 1954 — the same year the Brown v. Board of Education decision set in motion the desegregation of American schools. And it wasn’t until the 1960s that the full desegregation of the reluctant military was considered accomplished.

In fact, the full desegregation of the military was not considered complete until July 26, 1963 — fifteen years to the day after Truman’s initial executive order — when the Defense Department, under Secretary of Defense Robert J. McNamara, issued its own directive, Defense Directive 5120.36, pushing for the elimination of discrimination against black troops outside of the military base.

In other words, the desegregation of the U.S. military did not take place with the stroke of a pen, nor was it completed — or actually even initiated — by Truman, who signed his executive orders in the summer of the last year of his first term, having succeeded FDR, who had died 82 days into his fourth term. Notably, Roosevelt, considered a Democratic hero, did not, in four terms as president, attempt to desegregate the military. Truman signed the order in the midst of a re-election fight that he was widely expected to lose. So fractured was Truman’s coalition that southern Democrats had abandoned the Democratic Party, running their own candidate for president that year on the segregationist “Dixiecrat” line — a southerner named Strom Thurmond.

The cause of the rift? Truman ordered a presidential level report in 1947 reviewing civil rights across the board, called “To Secure These Rights,” which aimed at reforms in voting and employment, among other things. As for desegregating the military, that process had began in 1945, when Truman’s secretary of war undertook a review of racial policies in the United States Army, Navy and Marines.

Here are the events that led up to Truman’s desegregation order:

1 October 1945 Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson ordered the U.S. Army to review its racial policies. Consequently, General George C. Marshall established a board headed by Lieutenant General Alvan C. Gillem, Jr., to study the situation and prepare a directive on the use of African Americans in the postwar Army.

17 November 1945 The Gillem Board finished its study of the Army’s racial policies and sent its report to the Chief of Staff. Although it came close to recommending that the Army integrate its forces, the Gillem Board members ultimately decided not to do so because integration “would have been a radical step, out of keeping with the climate of opinion in the country and in the Army itself.” Instead the board provided 18 specific recommendations based on the principles that African Americans had “a constitutional right to fight” and the Army had “to make the most effective use of every soldier.” Although the Gillem Board advised Army leaders to provide more opportunities for qualified blacks based on individual merit, it sidestepped the fundamental problem of segregation and only committed the Army to limited reforms.

1945-46 During the immediate postwar period, the U.S. Armed Forces began developing new racial policies. The need to make the most effective use of all available manpower, demands by civil rights groups, and higher black reenlistment rates were major factors affecting the new policies.

1945-50 The Marine Corps’ postwar attempt to adhere to a policy of rigid racial segregation remained in effect until the Korean War. It ultimately established a numerical quota of 1500 blacks, most of whom the Corps tried to assign to the nonwhite Steward’s Branch. Few recruits signed up for such duty, while those men already in that branch constantly sought transfers to general duty. Not only did this continual pressure cause problems for the USMC, but the unwillingness of most U.S. communities to accept “a large segregated group of black marines…was infinitely more difficult.”

In short, the military after World War II was facing a problem of blacks who fought in the war wanting to re-enlist, but in most cases, the military didn’t want them, except as Navy stewards or other menial tasks. The tension between the soldiers’ demands, and increasing agitation from civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph, plus the basic manpower needs of the military, forced the military itself — not the president — to look at the policy. Truman didn’t even become directly involved in the issue until September of 1946, when several instances of racially-motivated violence against black veterans caused his government to take an aggressive stance on civil rights across the board, with the military included in the mix. Which brings us to 1947:

May 1947 The Secretary of War adopted a National Guard Policy Committee resolution allowing individual states to determine the issue of “integration above the company level,” although the Army continued to prohibit “integration at the company level.” That same year, New Jersey became the first state to specifically end segregation in its militia. This action created new problems for Army leaders, who now had to deal with “an incompatible situation between the segregated active forces and the incompletely integrated reserve organization.”

30 June 1947 By this time, African-American soldiers represented 7.91 percent of the Army’s total manpower. Instead of being based on their demographic presence in the U.S. population, however, black enlistments were “geared to a percentage of the total Army strength.” By adjusting the enlistment quota, the Army could easily increase or decrease the percentage of blacks within its ranks.

25 July 1947 Congress passed the National Security Act, reorganizing the U.S. military establishment. The new legislation created the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), a separate Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Council. It also reorganized the War Department as the Department of the Army and made the Joint Chiefs of Staff a permanent agency.

October 1947 To avoid the political backlash if he failed to act on discrimination in the federal government, President Truman’s political advisors decided that his best move was to issue an executive order “securing the civil rights of both civilian government employees and members of the armed forces.”

Truman would issue that executive order in July of 1948, just months before the election, after A. Philip Randoph had gone to the White House to complain that integration of blacks into the armed forces was simply not taking place, and just days after the Dixiecrats bolted from the Democratic Party following the July convention, because of Truman’s strong civil rights platform.

That platform would change not just the United States military, and the fortunes of African-Americans who wished to serve their country without the scourge of segregation, it would also help set the stage for the broader fight for civil rights.

Read more at the Truman Library.

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